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Pasco's budget requires hard choices and courage

What will $13 million buy you? It is the question Pasco commissioners must ponder over the next 75 days as they move toward adopting a new budget by Sept. 30. It is not a windfall. Don't consider this found money when the alternative is longer waits for buses, fewer county swimming pools, library branches closed half the time, less enforcement of county codes and shorter hours at the Animal Services center.

The proposed county budget for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 includes $13 million in unencumbered money available to commissioners as they start making the hard budget choices. The dollars come from a preliminary plan to increase the property tax rate 19 percent, the so-called rollback rate needed to raise the same amount of revenue in the current budget.

Though a 19 percent increase might be perceived as exorbitant in some quarters, the total tax rate, if approved, would translate into an additional $1.62 a week for the owner of a typical residence with an assessed taxable value of $65,000 after exemptions. Outside of the current year, it would remain the smallest county property tax bill since 1995. It is a reasonable number even in a recession, and commissioners should be commended for their willingness to consider it.

Commissioners could use the money to ease the pain of laying off 127 employees, eliminating another 131 vacant jobs and the accompanying service cuts such employment reductions would bring. They could set aside part of the money for next year when the budget-writing chore is expected to be equally as difficult. They could even opt to reduce the proposed property tax rate if they so desire.

Separately, commissioners and their employees must decide on the appropriate level of firefighting and emergency services for their citizens. The proposed budget calls for eliminating 48 of the county's 277 firefighting positions and 20 of its 163 ambulance personnel, a number that could drop significantly if salary concessions can be negotiated with the firefighters' union. County staffers later said as many as 77 firefighters positions could be eliminated if the fire district's property tax rate did not increase.

The shortfalls come because the county would collect $23 million less with an unchanged tax rate due to dropping property values and exemptions from Amendment 1. In addition, revenue sharing and sales tax collections are off nearly $2.8 million and interest income is down almost $11.7 million. That translates to a worse-case budget proposal released Tuesday to cut:

• 40 jobs from parks and recreation, forcing two county swimming pools to close, programs to be trimmed and requiring youth and adult sports leagues to prepare and clean up county fields after games.

• 26 jobs from library services, forcing four library branches (two each in east and southwest Pasco) to be open just two and one-half days weekly.

• 13 jobs from Animal Services, cutting the hours of operation at the shelter and reducing after-hours service.

• 20 jobs in public transportation, eliminating bus service on Saturdays, holidays, a route in Zephyrhills, and stretching the time between buses on U.S. 19 from 30 to 45 minutes.

Cuts also are planned for the Cooperative Extension, code enforcement, and human and veterans services as well as internal county departments that manage facilities, information technology, communications and other support services.

Already individual constituencies are letting their feelings be known. More than three dozen green-clad children and adults protesting proposed cuts to the Cooperative Extension's 4-H program sat in the commission audience Tuesday morning.

Commissioners must weigh other considerations, too. For instance, a previous generation of Pasco voters decided it was worth paying higher property taxes for 10 years to build new parks and libraries. Shuttering some of those facilities or reducing them to part-time status reverses the improved quality of life residents wanted.

Similarly, Pasco has moved from a hodge-podge of volunteer fire squads to a near countywide fire department and ambulance service. County employee salaries are being frozen for the second consecutive year, and firefighters shouldn't be too eager to grab a mediator-authorized 5 percent raise if it means closing fire stations and reducing the number of firefighters on a truck.

John Gallagher, county administrator for 27 years, called this the most trying budget of his career. County government, he said, must return to a mission of providing core services. Indeed. Citizen survey results show commissioners will be challenged to balance competing interests based on diverse geography and demographics around the county. Inevitably, one person's essential service is someone else's extravagance.

Pasco's budget requires hard choices and courage 07/14/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 14, 2009 4:52pm]
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